Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff

Reinvent yourself

Companies are like people: They get into a rut. They do the same things year after year and it eventually becomes rote, and you forget why you are in business in the first place.

You only need to go back a few years to the bankruptcy of two of our country’s largest corporations, GM and Chrysler, to see how this complacency works. GM and Chrysler used the bankruptcy proceedings to reinvent themselves. Slashing models and nameplates, they became shadows of their former selves and they survived.

I heard a talk recently about how the great companies of the world approach their business. They begin with the question “why.”

Traditionally, we have looked at our businesses and asked the question “what” or “how,” but asking “why” leads to a whole set of paradigms. Some of the most exciting and creative companies in the world use this model to operate.

Take Apple for example. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, the company was close to bankruptcy. They began to ask why and the company morphed into an icon that brought us the iPod, iPhone, and iPad over the next 20 years. Apple changed the way we work and also changed the company culture substantially. Even today, an Apple product announcement is a major media event.

When we ask, “Why?” the whole essence of what we do and why we do it comes into play.

The point of all of this is that we need to look at our companies from time to time to see the “why.” Why are we doing what we are doing? Why do our customers come to us? What are we doing for them? How can we do what we do better?

At our company, we have management meetings every year. I used to start our meetings with two questions. What do we do well? What do we do poorly? (For years, my wife objected to the wording of the second question, preferring instead to ask what could we do better. But this was my part of the meeting so I stuck to my terminology.) These questions set the stage for adjustment but they can also set the stage for reinvention.

The answer to “why” does not need to be a very technical answer, although it can be. Think about Apple. Why do we have an iPhone? Answer: so our customers can stay connected at all times. That produces a different result than if the answer was so our customers can make phone calls from anywhere. If that were the answer, Apple would have made flip phones and someone else would be the world’s leader in making cell phones.

Reinventing yourself is about the allocation of your resources, both capital and human. It may involve moving people from one area of the company to another. It may involve the way that capital is allocated.

Another thing about reinventing yourself is that doing it can prevent big problems in the future. I wonder if we would still have a Blockbuster or a Circuit City today if management had thought about reinvention before the companies went into their death spirals. That is not the time to think about these things; that time is long past.

I have some tips and cautions about reinventing yourself.

• Concentrate on the weakest areas of your company. The strongest areas may not need to be reinvented (yet!).

• Bring everyone into the process. You might be surprised where the best ideas come from.

• Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Mistakes happen but so do outstanding successes.

• Be sure to think outside the box — that is what this whole process is about. It is outside the box.•

Dave Mount is the founder of Westaff in Burlington.

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